Freelance Strategies for the Karma Economy

Nice guys finish… first?

That’s the question that we all wonder when we hear about phenomena like the “Thank You Economy”–does this mean that the best way to rise to the top is to be a nice guy?

Sure, we’ve all heard anecdotes about very successful people like Leo Babauta and Brian Clark, who have earned reputations as super-nice people.

And there are also examples like Donald Trump and Dan Kennedy, who have earned reputations as being… well… let’s just say “less than nice”–but they’re still very successful.

So should you be nice, or not? Who’s the exception, and who’s the rule? And how can we trust anyone’s example anyway–it’s just anecdote, right?

What we really need is to understand the mechanism: we need to know how the way that you treat people relates to your success.

All right then–buckle up, because it’s going to be an interesting ride!

What Goes Around Comes Around?

Not exactly…

It’s not as simple as “what goes around comes around”–we don’t keep ledgers in our heads of favors given and favors owed, comments written and comments received, or tweets for tweets.

And yet, the people who help others the most seem to be the most successful players in the blogosphere.

Most interestingly, those who do help others by engaging on their blogs, tweeting their stuff, and doing favors to help out whenever they can–they’re the last to ever do any kind of accounting as to who owes who what favor.

So what gives? How does it work? Is it just a fluke? Random coincidence?

No, it isn’t…

We Prefer to Help People Who Are Helpful

What it all comes down to is that we prefer to help people who are helpful to others.

There are several reasons why this happens. Part of it is wired into our human nature, and part of it is strategic–but it all points to the fact that helping others is just a good idea:

  1. When we see someone do something nice for someone else, it warms our heart, and inspires us to do the same.
  2. We feel that people who are out there helping others have earned their success, and deserve the little bit of extra help that we can offer.
  3. We trust that they’d do the same for us–as evidenced by their willingness to do the same for others–and we feel that it’s only fair that we do the same for them.

Long story short, helping others isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.

Can Jerks Rise to the Top?

Which raises the question: can jerks rise to the top? The answer is that, all things being equal, no, they can’t.

But all things are never equal.

Jerks rise to the top not because they’re jerks, but rather IN SPITE of the fact that they’re jerks. They have some kind of edge–they’re smarter, more talented, or often just lucky.

But that sort of success isn’t sustainable–sooner or later, the jerks need others to help them, and they won’t be able to use their power and influence to get people to comply.

And their empires will start to crumble.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying that every jerk out there is doomed–some can ride their wave of success for a very long time, and some will never be knocked down from it.

I’m just saying that those people would have been successful anyway, and they probably would have been more successful if they’d been nicer and more helpful people.

In other words, being a jerk is a regrettable personality choice, but it isn’t a success strategy.

Two Criteria for Cultivating Good Karma

So we’ve established that the smart way to win in the Karma Economy is to help others.

But how do we do that?

I mean, sure, you can always give everything away, but that isn’t a strategy for winning, it’s a strategy for going broke!

We need criteria that can help us decide what to give away, and what not to:

  1. You’re giving something valuable. That’s the first rule of thumb–if you’re going to give something away, it had better be valuable to the receiver. This may seem counter-intuitive–after all, if it’s valuable, shouldn’t you charge for it? But no–give away stuff that is valuable, and that people will appreciate receiving from you. (Actually, this applies for everything you do, whether it’s free or paid!)
  2. It’s cheap for you to give. The second criterion is that the giving can’t cost you very much. If it breaks the bank for you, then you can’t give away much of it–that isn’t sustainable, and can’t translate to a regular practice of giving (for giving to work, it has to be a process and practice–not an event).

Based on these two criteria, here are some examples of good and bad giving scenarios:

  • GOOD: Spend half an hour giving free advice to someone who really needs it–it only takes half an hour of your time (cheap), but it solves a serious problem for the person on the receiving end (valuable).
  • BAD: Spend half an hour sending unsolicited advice to a thought leader in your field–it may not take too much of your time (cheap), but it doesn’t really help the person on the receiving end very much, either (not valuable).
  • GOOD: Give someone who can’t afford it free access to your digital information product–there’s no incremental expense for you (cheap), but they get access to a high quality product that they need, and couldn’t otherwise afford (valuable).
  • BAD: Give someone who can’t afford it access to your physical product, that involves a lot of support time from you. Sure, it’s great for them (valuable), but there are a lot of costs involved for you (expensive).
  • GOOD: Spend an hour on the phone with a prospect, pointing them to free resources that they can use in order to get work done that they can’t afford to pay you for. It helps them out a lot (valuable), and it doesn’t cost you very much (cheap).
  • BAD: Take the client on for free, to do the work for them. Sure, it’s great for them (valuable), but it costs you a lot of your time (expensive), which means that it isn’t cost-effective.

Do you see the pattern? Look for opportunities to help people out in a way that will be valuable for them, but inexpensive for you–which means that you can keep on doing it over and over again!

Giving is what drives the Karma Economy, for all of us. To win, you’ve got to find a way to do it in a way that helps others, and can scale as much as you need it to.

Your Turn

Over to you–what’s your take on giving? When do you feel it’s appropriate, and when is it asking for too much?

Image by garryknight


  1. says

    I would add that it is extremely important to set a personal limit on what you are willing to give far before you start handing it out for free. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can be an “online enabler.” That doesn’t do either party any good. I somehow become far more invested in another’s success than they are, they get into the cycle of expecting more and more handouts (from everyone) and never put those freebies into play for themselves.

    Draw the line early, and then stick with it.

  2. Catena Creations says

    I think it’s very important to give back in some way. I enjoy meeting with people who are starting a business and sharing some of the stuff I’ve learned. I also enjoy contributing time and talents to worthy organizations.

    I also appreciate that you pointed out not to give too much. You don’t need to let others take advantage of you in order to give generously.

  3. says

    I have had some trouble with this. I work in a field thst is constantly inundated with newbies (publishing). People want to constantly pick my brain. Not just new authors either! But this is very helpful. Thx for the concrete tips!

  4. says

    Danny, I love the term you coined here: Karma Economy. I always tell other freelancers that karma is digital. I guess, it all comes down to ethics and what you value most in your freelance business. In the end, it’s all about going the extra mile and knowing your limits that makes you successful in your niche. Now, I’m reminded of this song from Eurythmics called ‘Sweet Dreams’ – an oldie but goodie tune with a twist, and they say “..some of them want to use you…some of them want to get used by you..” Ironic, I’d say.

  5. says

    Moving from “free to fee” takes some learning curve. It’s not same for all. It depends on how you pitch your product or service. Take case of google for example, they’ve google apps for free for limited users and charge fee for same service but for volume usage. I’m not sure if there is one way to formulate “free to fee” concept in case of freelancing.

  6. says

    Hey Mahesh, that’s a really good point – the transition from free to fee is challenging, and my friend Greg Rader has written about it in detail (Google him). :) It can definitely be done, though – that’s where smart marketing comes in! :D

  7. says

    Hi Danny, I have already tried to contact you via facebook. I’m a Berlin-based author. Actually I am an architect and founder of a social DIY Movement called “Hartz IV Moebel”. I know that there are also some guys out there in Montreal, who has already participated the movement. I am writing in one chapter of this book about “Karma Economy”, because thats the philosophy behind my DIY plans (which are for free) and I would love to have a short interview with you. Just 3 questions. Are you in? More info about the book (watch the video with english subtitle), yours Van Bo


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